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Loretta Lynn, coal miner's daughter and country music icon, dies at 90

“I would have given anything in the world if (my father) would have been here when I recorded 'Coal Miner’s Daughter,' but I think he hears me,” Lynn said in 2018. “And one day I will sing it for him.”
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Loretta Lynn, who was born a coal miner’s daughter before becoming one of the crown jewels of country music, has died.

She was 90.

Lynn’s family said in a statement that she died Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.

“Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, October 4th, in her sleep at home in her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills,” the family said in a statement. They asked for privacy.

Born as Loretta Webb in the remote Appalachian mountain village of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, she was the second of eight children, and the family lived in a log cabin with wallpaper made out of Sears Roebuck catalog pages. Her early life revolved around the coal mine where her father toiled and the church where she learned to sing. That hardscrabble beginning helped lay the groundwork for her status as the voice of working class women — most famously through her signature 1970 hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” an ode to her father, Melvin Webb, who died of black lung disease 11 years earlier.

“I write about my life — in every song I’ve written,” Lynn told TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager in 2018.

“I would have given anything in the world if he (my father) would have been here when I recorded 'Coal Miner’s Daughter,' but I think he hears me,” Lynn told Hager. “And one day I will sing it for him.”

There was plenty of talent in that family: Her younger sister went on to have an enormously successful country career of her own under the name Crystal Gayle.

By the time Lynn moved to Nashville in 1960 on the strength of her debut single “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” as well as a tireless promotional crusade to radio stations across the country, she had already racked up a life worth of lyrics.

Just 15 when she married a 21-year-old war veteran Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn — she erroneously reported that she wed at the age of 13 in her autobiography — she was a housewife in Washington with four young children when a scout for Zero Records discovered her crooning in a small club in Vancouver.

Once she made that cross-country pilgrimage to the Music City, her rise was meteoric.

Lynn’s breakthrough came two years later with the aptly titled tune “Success,” the first for Decca Records and the first of an eventual 51 top-10 hits.

Image: Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn performs on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in Memphis, Tenn., on Oct. 7, 1970.CBS via Getty Images

“People were charmed by her innocence,” country author and documentary filmmaker Robert K. Oermann said. “She was so naive about life and the business and the music, that she came off as charming to people.

“Well, that and the fact that she was a hell of a singer.”

With country pioneer Patsy Cline as a friend and mentor until she died in a 1963 plane crash, Lynn wrote and sang songs that appealed to women. She quickly realized that most of the audience listening to country radio at the time and buying albums were women like her. Songs such as “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” found resonance.

“Women found the champion with Loretta Lynn,” country music historian Bill Malone told NBC News. “They could identify with her success but they also independence of mind.

“I don’t think she ever identified with the women’s rights movement, yet her songs accomplished the same objective.”

At the height of her career, Lynn, along with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, proved to be the biggest female stars in country music. One of her biggest hits came on a 1972 duet with Conway Twitty, “After the Fire Is Gone.”

Lynn also proved unfazed by controversy, releasing songs glorifying sex (“Wings Upon Your Horns”), divorce (“Rated X”), questioning the Vietnam War (“Dear Uncle Sam”) and most famously, “The Pill,” about birth control.

Her signature 1970 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” became the title of her 1976 autobiography, which was turned into the Oscar-winning 1980 film with Sissy Spacek as the lead.

In 1972, Lynn became the first woman in history to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year trophy, and she would add a mantle’s worth of hardware to go with it over the years — four Grammys, a 2003 Kennedy Center honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom a decade later. Over her six-decade career, Lynn sold more than 45 million albums, according to her personal website.

After the turn of the century, Lynn found a second act of sorts from the success of a 2004 collaboration with Jack White. Her reputation as a champion of women, however, took a hit in 2017 when the Trump supporter took a shot at the celebrities involved with the Women’s March for not having “more class.”

Health issues dominated more recent headlines. At the age of 85, she suffered a stroke and then broke her hip in a fall eight months later.

Widowed since 1996, Lynn is survived by four children — Clara, Ernest, and twins Peggy Jean and Patsy Eileen. Her eldest son, Jack Benny, drowned in 1984 at the age of 34 while trying to cross a river on horseback on the family ranch; eldest daughter Betty Sue, 64, died of emphysema in 2013.

Lynn also leaves behind legions of fans spread across generations.

“She was singing it like the women listening to her lived it,” said Oermann. “‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin,’ that’s a situation that millions of women have been in and relate to.”